Outside a Trump event in New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, a truck driver named Alex Pniewski took a break from yelling “WikiLeaks” at the top of his lungs to argue with me about WikiLeaks.
Pniewski told me the hacked emails revealed sweeping corruption. I responded that they basically told us things we already knew. I had spent that morning reading other people’s emails — a hard thing to feel good about, but who said reporting came with clean hands? They showed Clinton’s aides being cautious and disciplined, and they buttressed years of reporting on soft influence trading around the Clinton Global Initiative.
As the leaks have piled up, though, they revealed one truth about the Clintons’ world, something that has long been said privately but rarely laid so bare: the deep cultural difference between Bill Clinton’s freewheeling circle and Hillary Clinton’s more disciplined and professionalized aides. And underneath that is the difference between a politician who fought his way to power by any means necessary and one whose own political career began in the White House.
Those revelations turn in particular on emails by and about Bill Clinton’s former body man, Doug Band. Band parlayed his physical proximity in the White House into a role at the center of everything Clinton critics find distasteful about how the family enriched themselves and their aides afterward. Band had a major supporting role in the biggest Clinton Foundation scandal — its embrace of a grifter, Raffaello Follieri — and founded a consulting firm called Teneo to connect big money to political power. Alec MacGillis captured in a 2013 profile just what it was that made many of Hillary Clinton’s aides dislike Band:
There’s an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity. More than anyone else except Clinton himself, Band is responsible for creating this culture. And not only did he create it; he has thrived in it.
WikiLeaks emails drawn from the second half of 2011 reveal this conflict in devastating detail, and also reveal the degree to which Chelsea Clinton was the one who brought the party to a halt.
In one email, Band complains of “acting like a spoiled brat kid who has nothing else to do but create issues to justify what she's doing.” In another, he appears to blame a colleague's serious personal problems on the former first daughter.
In a December 2011 email first reported by Politico, Chelsea Clinton reported “serious concerns” about Teneo’s dealings, which were “precipitating people in London making comparisons between my father and Tony Blair's profit motivations.”
Another Clinton aide, she wrote, had worked for Teneo “and then recently stopped because she was so upset, partly because of what Doug and [his partner at Teneo] Declan [Kelly] asked her to do/pretend was happening for their clients at Davos.”
By January 2012, Band clearly knew Chelsea had done him in. He forwarded a polite email from her to Podesta with this complaint:
“As they say, the apple doesn't fall far,” he wrote — a shot at which parent, it was not clear. “A kiss on the cheek while she is sticking a knife in the back, and front.”
Band declined to comment on the episodes; a Clinton spokesperson didn’t respond to an inquiry about them, though the campaign has broadly refused to confirm that the emails are real and stressed that they were made public in what US intelligence officials believe was a Russian intelligence operation.
Everything that has been whispered in the Clintons’ circle for years, and that MacGillis got as close as anyone at reporting out in 2013, is laid pretty bare by WikiLeaks. And for all the real discomfort the email leaks have caused, Band has obviously sustained the most damage.
And the answer has to do with the generations of Clinton family power, of which there are, say, two and a half.
Bill Clinton fought his way from Arkansas to the presidency. Few politicians who fight their way up from nowhere do it with entirely clean hands. Even Obama, who rose so fast that he wound up doing relatively little of this, had the help of a crooked developer named Tony Rezko. Clinton made deals and helped friends, which is what you do when you’re building a political empire. That’s a practice that requires a retinue of dealmakers and enforcers, and Band embodies a style of self-made political power that was the source of occasional scandal in the Clinton White House. (Remember the donors in the Lincoln Bedroom?)
There is a different kind of path to power. George W. Bush inherited two generations’ of favors and connections, along with family wealth. There was less pressure on him to indulge in nickel-and-dime favor trading, or to embarrass himself to get rich. He was already rich, already had a bank full of favors.
Chelsea Clinton has, of course, taken that latter path. Her career, through a Clinton friend’s hedge fund and a preposterously compensated TV job, is the sort that you can only inherit. And the emails make clear that she was appalled by Band and what he represents. Her disgust could not have served her mother better: She purged Band and brought in the white shoe law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett to clean up the Clinton Foundation, no doubt saving the campaign untold reports of exchanges of money for access and at least the hint of influence.
The remaining question is to which of those generations Hillary Clinton belongs? On one hand, she fought her way up from Arkansas with Bill. The old-school, hustling Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe has always been close to her campaigns, and she too allowed criminals to get close to her when they were useful.
On the other hand, her personal political career is more like George W. Bush’s than like her husband’s: The family network, led by Rep. Charlie Rangel, ushered her into a Senate seat. And when she left office, she kept her distance from Band’s glitzy, transactional sphere. She cashed in, instead, with a book and with paid speaking, which is the pure exchange of money for proximity, and only the illusion of influence.
Both of these styles of politics — the grubby transactionalism of the self-made, and the white-glove rent-seeking of the aristocrat — can surely be seen as corrupt. The Bushes’ and latter-day Clintons’ ease in leveraging power for wealth and more power seem to have outraged some Americans as much as evidence of Donald Trump’s personal dishonesty and allegations that his businesses committed actual fraud.
This is in some way in the deep DNA of politics: You can have outsiders and tolerate the price they paid to rise, or you can have comfortable elites, a generation or two away from having really dirty hands. Pick your poison, and even consider that the flavor of corruption isn’t the only reason to support or oppose a candidate.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.